Thirty years ago, few people had ever heard of the Via Francigena: a 2,000km medieval pilgrimage route that snakes a path from Canterbury all the way to Rome.

I was walking through a centuries-old village in northern Tuscany with not another human in sight. To my right, a few horses grazed in a large paddock. To my left, beyond an old stone house that looked as though it had stood for hundreds of years, a thick copse expanded into a forest of oak, chestnut, holly and ash trees. There was no sound except the buzzing of insects and the drumbeat of my feet hitting the path – a path that, I realised, had become harder underfoot. I stopped and bent down, my pack weighing heavily on my back. Peering through the dirt and moss, I could see bits of stone, like hundreds of disjointed puzzle pieces leading me ahead. I had stumbled upon an ancient Roman road.

I was on day two of walking the Via Francigena, a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage route that extends around 2,000km from the English city of Canterbury all the way to Rome. Its name is a nod to the fact that it travels through France, but during its history the route was also known as the Via Romea for the city where it ends.

Walking over long distances, sometimes as far as 24km a day, was new to me. Like many people I met walking the Via Francigena, I’d never backpacked or taken a multi-day hike (the route’s spiritual and cultural aspects seemed to attract those more inclined toward historical immersion and personal transformation than fitness). But the knowledge that people have trodden the same path for centuries made walking it seem somewhat plausible, like something anyone could accomplish if they had thick enough socks and a little too much self-confidence.

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The saying ‘all roads lead to Rome’ has become a quaint and somewhat clichéd turn-of-phrase these days. But when the Roman Empire ruled over places such as England, present-day Spain, North Africa, and even modern-day Israel and Turkey, it was true. As the Romans expanded their dominion, they built roads to connect the conquered cities back to heart of the empire. And after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, Roman denizens had new, religious reasons to visit the capital city – such as seeing the resting places of the biblical apostles St Peter and St Paul, according to author Carla Mackey who is writing a guide to the Via Francigena and has walked multiple sections of it.

Pilgrimages have been undertaken by people of varying spiritual and religious traditions for thousands of years, from Tibetan Buddhists prostrating their way to Lhasa to Muslims journeying to the holy city of Mecca. The Via Francigena was a route endorsed by the Catholic Church, according to Mackey, with Pope Boniface VIII declaring that the first jubilee would be in 1300AD, when anyone who made the pilgrimage to Rome could have their sins wiped clean. If pilgrims were especially devoted, they could also continue the pilgrimage through southern Italy and onward to Jerusalem.

All roads lead to Rome

In 990AD, the Archbishop of Canterbury named Sigeric the Serious had a more practical reason to walk to Rome. Having risen into his prestigious office, he needed to visit the Vatican to be ordained and collect his official garments. At the time he made the journey, there were many different paths to Rome. But Sigeric, who’d left from Canterbury, wrote down his route home through Italy, Switzerland, France and into the UK, cataloguing the towns he stayed in on his journey. The route he took now makes up the official Via Francigena. The only part that cannot be completed on foot is the English Channel, which medieval pilgrims crossed by boat (and modern pilgrims on the Dover-to-Calais ferry).

As the Renaissance blossomed in Europe, the Via Francigena began to decline in popularity. Trading routes multiplied and shifted to pass through Florence, one of Italy’s most significant intellectual, artistic and mercantile cities at the time.

The Via Francigena became, for the most part, forgotten, although sections remained in use as local roads and footpaths. Things remained that way until 1985. That year, a Tuscan anthropologist, writer and adventurer named Giovanni Caselli was looking for new topics to write travel books about. As an enthusiastic hiker who had also walked the old Silk Road through China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Caselli decided to walk the Via Francigena after learning about Sigeric’s route.

“I would go into a town and ask the local people, ‘What’s the oldest route from here to there’,” he said. “And it worked, because the local memory of these paths still exists.” Caselli walked all the way from Canterbury to Rome, crossing the British countryside, the English Channel (by ferry), French Champagne country, the Swiss Alps and the rolling hills of Tuscany.

After Caselli published his book about the Via Francigena in 1990, the route started gaining attention. In 1994, the Via Francigena became one of the Council of Europe’s designated Cultural Routes. Then in 2006, the organisations that oversee the Via Francigena decided on the official route that pilgrims walk today. Many pilgrims see it as an alternative or follow-up to Spain’s better known – and much busier ­– Camino de Santiago.

Walking the Italian portion of the Via Francigena, it’s common to see a handful of other walkers, as well as cyclists, along the route. But the northern stretches, like those through England, France and Switzerland, are usually fairly empty. British couple Nell Sleet and Luke Smith walked the entire Via Francigena in 2017, but said they only saw six fellow pilgrims during their first month walking.

Like me, Sleet and Smith, who write a blog about the Via Francigena and other walks, experienced some serious nerves as they began their journey. At first, they said, doing a three-month walk seemed crazy. But the route exerted a kind of magnetic pull, and before they knew it, they were on the road.

We felt like it was calling us

“What ordinary person even walks that far?” they told me in an email. “But it’s funny, we felt like it was calling us.”

On the morning they set out from Canterbury, the pair was apparently so nervous that they couldn’t even finish their breakfast. “Walking all day, then having to put up a tent, then take it down, pack it up, and do it all over again [the next day] is a bit overwhelming,” they said.

I felt the same way, even though I only covered a short portion of the route, from Lucca to San Gimignano (about 75km) and stayed in pilgrim hostels and hotels along the way. I was horrified by the anticipation that had built up around this grand adventure. I was, I had hoped, a person who could fearlessly book a ticket, fly 13,000km from my Hawaii home and walk an ancient route alone, with no training. But what if I was wrong?

As I trudged through the streets of Lucca on my first day, the sun shone hot on my skin and the wind brushed my face. Without the protection of a car or bus, I smelled every rubbish bin and felt the whoosh of passing cyclists. I heard the gentle thud of my feet and noticed how the texture of the ground – whether earth, grass, cobblestone or cement – changed my stride.

I stopped to get a stamp in my pilgrim passport (as I would do at regular intervals throughout the route) at Lucca Cathedral, then continued out into the suburbs, passing cats perched on fences, overgrown lots and backyard streams until the neighbourhoods became more rural. At every intersection, I looked for the tiny image of a pilgrim – whether on a lamp post, small sign or spray painted on the pavement – to guide my way.

Eventually, the lull of my footsteps slowed my thoughts. My heartbeat matched my pace for the first time in a long while. My feet started to hurt, so I told myself, “just a little further”.

Somewhere around hour five, I walked off the road and threw my backpack down under the canopy of a sprawling oak tree. I plopped onto the ground and laid back, feeling the prickle of thorns and burrs; the dry caking of sweat, dirt and sunscreen on my face; the hard rocks underneath me. The last things I saw before I closed my eyes were the leaves, dancing in the afternoon breeze, outlined by the blue sky.

Like many moments of my five days on the Via Francigena, it was dusty and quiet. Lucca had faded into semi-rural, semi-industrial outskirts that will likely never be on any tour itinerary. It was not particularly impressive or photo-worthy – it was a moment that would be hard to justify to someone else, to explain why, out of all the things I could have done, I had chosen to be there.

But, the truth is that beneath that tree, I was doing more than ‘seeing’ Italy, or Tuscany, or the Via Francigena. I was a part of them, the way countless pilgrims before me had been.

I think about nothing, too. It’s wonderful. Isn’t it?

On my third night, I was eating dinner with other pilgrims in a hostel outside the vertiginous hill town of Gambassi Terme (I chose the small hotel because when I arrived, my feet riddled with crippling blisters, I knew that if I stayed there I would not have to climb the steep slope before I could rest). As we dug into plates of pasta al pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce), the man next to me – an Italian in his 60s who had completed a week of the Via Francigena so far – furrowed his brow and posed a question, as though he’d been thinking about it for a long time.

 “What do you think about when you’re walking?” he asked me.

“Honestly?” I said, “When I walk I mostly think about nothing.”

He laughed softly and smiled.

“I think about nothing, too. It’s wonderful. Isn’t it?”

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